Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Raging Bull (April 1st and 2nd at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[RAGING BULL screens Friday April 1st at 9:05 p.m. and Satirday April 2nd at 7 p.m. at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady Jr.

I don't like RAGING BULL.

Okay, April Fool! You been punked!... Hello? Are you okay? (checks reader pulse, shakes head grimly, pulls sheet over blog follower's corpse)... Dead of a heart attack induced by shock. Gee, I didn't mean to do that. Drops our readership considerably. In my mild defense, I wasn't half kidding. True, Martin Scorsese's RAGING BULL, right from its 1980s release, was embraced by critics better paid than I (which is all of them) as a classic, canonical, the best thing that ever could be, making plenty of Top Ten lists. Still, might I politely state that from my perspective it's just a tiny bit...overrated?

As every schoolboy knows, the feature is the biopic of boxing champion Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), middleweight title-holder from 1949 to 1951. He's depicted as a ferocious brawler who had a distinction of never getting knocked out in the ring. LaMotta is here a force of primal fury, a thug more so than an athlete. He discards his first wife to take as his teen bride a stereotypically 1940s-50s blonde right off a pulp-novel cover (Cathy Moriarty in a breakthrough role). His fast-talking, deal-making little brother Paulie (Joe Pesci in a breakthrough role), Jake's manager, may be the one guy looking out for Jake's welfare (if only to feather his own nest), but Joey's schemes nonetheless get Jake involved in a mobbed-up scandal in which the vicious battler must unwillingly `throw' a fight. 

Though a series of victories earn Jake champion status, psychologically he becomes a bloated, drunken wreck, letting his training slacken, abusing his wife in jealous rages (eventually she leaves him) and finally driving Joey away. Beaten at last by up-and-coming Sugar Ray Robinson, LaMotta retires, defeated but never knocked out. After a rather facile hitting-bottom scene, Jake realizes he has to clean up his act and becomes a night club entertainer - coming across in context, at least to me, as more sad than anything else - reciting poetry and Shakespeare to the barflies. But to former seminarian Scorsese's Catholic-influenced way of thinking (and former seminarian Paul Schrader's script), dude has redeemed himself, somewhat, a little, I think. Or at least he got a movie made about him, which in many such pathographies, seems to be the ultimate compensation.

Okay, I guess, whatever. Better than the cinematic Jake LaMotta dropping all those pounds in rigorous training with Mr. Miyagi and going back into the arena vs. Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, Hulk Hogan or an evil Russian.

Certainly RAGING BULL does sort of represent the last hurrah of "serious" 1970s cinema which gave us prominent movies like TAXI DRIVER or FIVE EASY PIECES - challenging, non-formulaic and seemingly made for grownups, before the corporate success of Lucas, Spielberg - and, since we're talking boxing, Stallone - brought cinema back down to chronic teen comic-book level. Still, it's kind of a chore - at least it was for the younger me - to spend more than two hours with trousered apes conspicuously lacking in any attractive qualities, not even the shades of personality and intellect Tony Soprano has.

It also did bug me that an inordinate amount of PR attention, then as now, went to the Ripley's-Believe-It-Or-Not factor in the film, that pre-FOCKERS thespian De Niro gained 50 lbs. to take his protagonist from whip-lean athlete to fat palooka, no CGI or trick suits. Yeah, but wasn't it more impressive for MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN, when De Niro had himself cut into pieces, buried in various cemeteries, then dug up, reassembled and resurrected in a laboratory? I'm joking again, I hope you know.
Scorsese's decision to shoot the film in exquisite black-and-white also gained wide notice (and a Best Cinematography Oscar), though it's been said a factor was the filmmaker's awareness that film preservation was a neglected art, and he didn't want a full-color RAGING BULL to fade pitifully in just a few years, as JAWS had.


The balletic fight scenes are justly famous, even though slo-mo boxing has become a cliche through overuse. So does the f-word in the dialogue, which my memory tells me was virtually nonstop, though I think JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK used it more. Yes, thanks for that, Kevin Smith. I guess for me the power of so-called good drama is that it would make you actually understand and empathize with seedy creeps like the foulmouthed goombahs and low-class wiseguys of the LaMottaverse. But I never did, and while this technically proficient journey through the dark soul of one of narrative screendom's nastier characters was bracing, by the end I was just kind of glad to get away from them. Though, thanks to the tremendous job done by everybody involved, I'll never fughedaboutit. (3 out of 4 stars).

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